Momma Bird Learns to Fly

I was sitting at my desk scanning Facebook one autumn morning sipping my coffee when my heart suddenly squeezed into my throat. A photo of my daughter had been posted by a mutual friend.  I hadn’t seen her face in two years, and I eagerly clicked through the images in the album for another glimpse of her.

My daughter singing

 To say that I “lost” my children is not correct. It is not as if I misplaced or forgot them somewhere. There are no words to describe this emptiness. It can only be communicated by mothers who know the constant craving for a child’s presence. I know well the blank stare that faces me and the words of baffled sympathy when I quietly tell someone that, because of a wretched divorce, I can no longer see my children.

The agony is like the strings of a violin fluttering lightly on the surface, a gentle mourning one moment, then groaning with deep-gut strains of lament in the next.  This is what I have of my children now, and memories. The way our baby (from my current marriage) twists her hair in her fingers as she falls asleep nursing  just like her older sister did,  or this startling sight of her singing in a photograph, more grown, more beautiful – these experiences rather than bringing pure joy tinge it with the longing for the missed moments of their lives.

Some memories sing to me. One spring day, during a rare visit to my home, we were in the breakfast area off the kitchen. Our house stood on a hill overlooking the town. A tall hedge grew outside the window, and that morning we found a surprise singing in its branches – a momma bird chirped with joy as she feathered her nest. Wee blue eggs nestled in its warmth, and the momma adjusted a twig or two, nudged an egg with her beak, and tucked herself in protectively.  My son and daughter watched with whispered sounds of awe.

“Do you think we’ll be able to see them hatch, Momma?” my daughter asked, her six-year-old wonder brimming with eagerness.

“I  hope so.  But even if we don’t see them hatch, the babies will be in the nest awhile before they fly away. So we’ll see them.”

Each morning we checked the nest. Momma Bird always sat on the eggs, or perched next to the nest, cleaning and feathering. I understood her devotion. For years I fought to have my children in my home again. This visit was a victory.

Several days before my children returned to their father’s home, the chicks hatched. We heard their peeping before we reached the window that morning, and our breakfast became a birthday party, complete with pancakes and birthday candles. “Where’s the momma?” asked my son.  I heard the concern in his voice, and maybe only imagined the fear.

“She’s probably getting them some food,” I said, wondering if he asks about me when I’m not there.  “She’ll be back soon.  Just watch,”  I added, wishing I could promise them the same about me. 

Sure enough, she appeared, breakfast in beak.  We watched her feed them and settle back in to nestle them under her wings.  My children and I ate our pancakes, giddy with hope for the newborns.

After my children departed,  leaving my nest empty,  I watched these chicks as if they were my own.  I worried when the mother was not there.   I wanted to reassure the babies that she would return.  I never expected to find the mother one morning, screeching alone on the branch where the nest had been.

I ran outside and skittered down the steep hill from the driveway to the side of the house, holding on to branches to keep from sliding.  When I reached the foot of the hedge, I saw.  The tiny nest lay on its side, the faded blue shells nearby, and the babies nowhere in sight.  The neighbor’s cat slinked guiltily by and meowed.  I didn’t need to see the tiny feather on its mug to know what had happened.

I had been kind to this cat before.  It was a friendly tabby with orange and white stripes.  Now I filled my fists with pebbles and dirt and flung it as hard as I could.  I lost my footing and landed hard on my backside.  And I wept, and was grateful that the hill hid me from the neighbors.  The mourning shrieks of the mother bird above me echoed the emptiness in my heart.

I don’t remember how long she stayed there crying for her little ones. It could have been hours or days. But I remember when she flew away, first to the power line nearby where the shrieking started up and faded, and then across the street to the neighbor’s wall. And after a few sharp screeches, she just spread her wings and flew away. 

Years later, I am still learning from that momma bird.  She was not trapped by the longing for her children.  Maybe it was just natural for her to move on and make a new nest.  Maybe for her there was no choice.  Nothing is as final as death.  I had a choice.  I could have stayed on the ground throwing clods of dirt and stone, fighting a losing battle.  But my children would still be gone. And there are still beds to be made, and children to be nursed and air to be breathed.  My nest is bigger now.  There are other children in it.  The two empty places in this nest will be kept, warm and feathered and ever ready to welcome them back, should my children wish to return.

by Marianne Dalton

"Empty Nest" by by Marianne Dalton

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